Name, age, divisiveness: Census raises troubling questions

By Editorial Board

The U.S. Census Bureau released a draft of the 2020 census March 27 that included questions regarding LGBTQ respondents, which were promptly removed the same day, followed by a statement explaining that their inclusion in the draft was a mistake.

No prior census has included questions on gender identity or sexuality, but the correction was a reminder of a yearslong fight to shed light on the LGBTQ community through the survey. Advocacy groups have pushed for representation of LGBTQ people in the census because the national survey could be a means of not only tracking the size of the community, but also identifying needs that can be met by adequate, informed federal funding.

The administration has rejected representing LGBTQ people in the census, but there is one topic that is sure to be included in the 2020 survey: citizenship. For the first time since 1950, the census will include a question regarding respondents’ citizenship status, according to a March 26 announcement by the Department of Commerce, which oversees the census.

Many are already bracing for a lower response rate to the census due to fears that answering the question honestly will lead to deportations. Although it is against the law to share an individual’s answers on the census with immigration or law enforcement agencies, those fears are warranted.

Considering the administration’s hostile attitude toward undocumented immigrants and its unpredictable actions, such as the Department of Justice setting quotas for the first time on the number of cases immigration judges hear in order to speed up processing deportations or President Donald Trump deciding “DACA is dead,” concerns over the administration’s motive behind adding the citizenship question to the census are not unfounded.

The makeup of the U.S. population, including the percentage of undocumented immigrants, needs to be known. This information would be valuable to better serve those communities, but the data cannot be trusted in the hands of the current administration.

U.S. census data should be an objective reflection of the nation’s population, but data can easily be weaponized by powerful political figures to subjugate groups of people already threatened by a xenophobic administration.

This isn’t a problem that will go away once the Trump administration is out. Unless there is an effort to protect the census from becoming a partisan tool, the fate of millions of Americans’ survey responses will depend on who is elected into office, for better or worse.

But actions being taken against the latest developments in the census can be an opportunity to make substantial long-term changes in who has the power over the survey.

From Connecticut to California, multiple states have filed lawsuits against the Trump administration to block the inclusion of the citizenship question on the census. At least 12 states have joined the effort on the basis the question will violate the Constitution, which requires all residents regardless of citizenship to be counted, by intimidating potential survey respondents from filling out the census.

This pushback should not simply be resolved with a decision to add one question or not; this is the time to use legal action to ensure current and future administrations do not have such sway over the census.

The census needs a legal mandate to not only represent diverse groups but to also guarantee any changes to the survey come from a place of progress—not intimidation or erasure.